The Union of Australian Women – A Celebration

Barbara Curthoys

The Union of Australian Women (UAW) was formed in 1950 as a vehicle for the advancement of the interests of working women and their families. Over the years, the UA W has been in the forefront oj campaigns for international peace, equal pay, recognition oj !International Women’s Day, Aboriginal Rights, children’s needs,price control, opposition to conscription and support for women in other countries struggling for human rights and independence.

On 13 November last year, to celebrate the UAW’s many fine efforts and achievements, two of its most stalwart activists, Barbara Curthoys and Audrey McDonald, launched a superbly written and produced history of the Union, which they’ve defiantly called More Than a Hat and Glove Brigade. Several hundred people attended the book’s launch by ACTU President, Jenny George, in the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union Auditorium, Sydney. I Those attending the launch were treated to a series of fine addresses on the UAW’s worth and work by Jenny George and the Community and Public Sector Union’s Wendy Caird, as well as by the authors themselves. The occasion really amounted to a farewell celebration, since the NSW Branch of the UAW was officially dissolved at the end of 1996.

The Hummer takes pride in being able to reproduce, below, the text of Barbara Curthoys’ address at the launch. Incidentally, Barbara and husband, Geoff, are longstanding supporters of the Sydney Branch.

More Than a Hat and Glove Brigade is published by Bookpress, Sydney, and is available in paperback (pp.179) for $30.00.

I would like to thank all those UAW members, past and present, who helped me to write this history by recalling events in which they participated, and were so willing to discuss the many issues that arose in the first twenty years of the UAW’s existence. For myself, I found the absorbing task of researching and recording the history a personal journey into the past. Reading minutes, reports, pamphlets newsletters and issues of Our Women, I was amazed at the huge variety of campaigns we waged in order to improve the lives of women. We fought against war, worked for children’s rights, for women’s equality and a myriad of other concerns. We kept alive and developed support for International Women’s Day and held our hand out in solidarity to women of all nations, through our affiliation with the Women’s International Democratic Federation.

In NSW, the UAW was formed in August 1950, quickly followed by the other states, and many of those who were at the inaugural meeting are here to-night. This meeting took place the year after the Menzies government came to power and the year he introduced his referendum to ban the Communist Party. It was also the same year that Australian troops were committed to take part in the war in Korea. The history details the difficulties experienced in this cold war climate, when the UA W dared to fight for peace, for equal rights for women, for a decent standard of living for working people, and for justice for Aboriginal Australians.

To-day, when the present government is busy recycling old policies for indigenous Australians, We don’t need to go any further back than the fifties to refute Mr Howard’s claim that we don’t have a racist past. Then, Aborigines were not even included in the census; Aboriginal children were taken from their parents to learn white ways, their own culture was ignored, derided and in many areas of Australia, irredeemably lost. The UA W, in that period, joined with other organisations to fight for equal rights for Aboriginal Australians, and Aboriginal women joined our ranks, though not in large numbers. Muriel Call ope is one of those featured in the book and her daughter

Diat Callope is here to-night. This UA W story describes some of these women; the ways in which the UA W involved itself in the struggle for full citizenship rights for Aboriginal Australians; and also how it gave its support to land rights campaigns which were then in their infancy.

UAW campaigns for equal rights for women were waged at a time when married women did not automatically have the right to work and were often dismissed from employment when they married. In the 1950s, it was regarded as an advance that 75 per cent of the male rate was granted federally in 1950 so that equal pay, or the equal rate for the job campaigns, often involved bringing the state awards to this level. This was our starting point in our struggle for equal pay.

Financially women had to endure many humiliating situations in those days. If married, hire purchase agreements had to be signed by one’s husband and it was extremely difficult for women to get bank loans. Women weren’t allowed on juries and the number of women on councils, let alone state or federal government, was minimal. All this was in our lifetime, not a hundred years ago.

An additional factor was that progressive organisations of the day came under the surveillance of ASIO, and the UA W was one of these. I was astounded to find out the degree to which we were being watched. Every state organisation had at least one ASIO agent in its midst and there were probably many more. Reports of national conferences were found in the ASIO files, often recorded by several agents. At the 1960 national conference the names of all those who attended, whether they were members or not were written down and every speech was reported. I was almost tempted to include ASIO in my acknowledgments because in’many cases the reports were lengthy and more detailed than our own minutes!

Labor Party women who wanted to join the UA W were faced with the fact that they could be expelled from the ALP if they did so. Lurline Simpson, who is here to-night, was elected national president in 1960. She had been a member of the ALP since the early fifties and decided to tough it out. The story of her fight to follow her conscience in this matter is told in the history.

The UAW was one of the few women’s organisations daring to take up the cudgels in 1950 and it is the activity of women such as these that led to the more dramatic changes of the seventies and eighties. The role the UA W played has often’ been overlooked and it is time that its history was recorded. I’m privileged to be one of those to have the opportunity to do so.

It should not be forgotten that we were unique in that the UA W membership was drawn mainly from the working class and many of the cost of living campaigns we waged reflect this. The affiliation to the UA W by the trade-union women’s committees, the Miners Women’s Auxiliaries, the Waterside Women’s and Seamen’s Women’s committees, and the Building Trade Union Women’s committees and others brought us even closer to the struggles for a decent living standard waged by the trade-union movement. You will find in the pages of this history brief accounts of these committees. Some histories of the trade-union women’s committees have appeared but much more remains to be written. Pat Parker, also present, is working on the history of the Waterside Workers Women’s Committees.

Younger readers will find some of the incidents in the book a revelation, while those who have lived through these years will be reminded of how it was then and how far we have come since the early fifties. We much resist all attempt by the present government to take us back to these dark ages.